The Triumphs and Failures of Franco Zeffirelli

Franco Zeffirelli in 1967

Since the Italian film, opera, and theater director Franco Zeffirelli passed away this past weekend at the age of ninety-six, two themes have emerged most prominently in discussions of the man and his work on social media. First, for all of last year’s think pieces and lists celebrating scores of fiftieth anniversaries—the release of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the arrival of Godard’s Weekend in the U.S., or the double punch of Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf and Shame—we tend to overlook the impact that Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet had in 1968. Second, we haven’t yet come up with a clean approach to a legacy that on the one hand encompasses good, perhaps even great, art, and on the other hand, personal behavior and politics that most would view as problematic, to say the least.

Romeo and Juliet was a hit, the sixth top-grossing film of 1968 in the U.S., earning more than Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, and Night of the Living Dead. Arriving one year after Zeffirelli’s first Shakespeare adaptation, The Taming of the Shrew, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Romeo and Juliet “had some pretty trad doublet-and-hose stuff and featured the syrupy ‘Love’ theme composed for the film by Nino Rota,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. But Bradshaw adds that “there were also muscular and athletic performances from a bright-eyed young cast” and a “honeyglow-sunlit romanticism” that “tuned into the zeitgeist.”

Casting was the film’s ultimate coup. American culture’s infatuation with youth, rooted in the 1950s and the birth of rock and roll, may have shifted its gaze to tie-dye and beads, but it was still insatiable. Zeffirelli conducted a worldwide search for unknown actors who would match the actual age of the lead characters before settling on Leonard Whiting, who was seventeen at the time, and sixteen-year-old Olivia Hussey. As the son and daughter of dueling families, Romeo and Juliet fly in the face of harsh societal condemnation and remain true to their love above all else, even unto death. There could hardly be a more resonant tale in the era of “make love, not war,” and Zeffirelli’s film, which would go on to become a classroom staple for years to come, is credited with introducing an entire generation to the immortal relevance of Shakespeare.

In 1981, Zeffirelli revisited the theme with Endless Love, the story of a high-school student (Martin Hewitt) who falls hard for a fifteen-year-old girl (Brooke Shields) whose family does all it can to put an end to the affair. Endless Love remains one of the most severely panned films in the director’s oeuvre, but it does have its defenders. “More than any classical melodrama I can think of, Endless Love’s narrative unspools with an almost surrealist dream-logic,” Brecht Andersch, a projectionist at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, wrote for Open Space in 2010, “and probably represents the supreme American cinematic embodiment of André Breton’s concept of l’amour fou, which Robert Hughes has described as ‘obsessional . . . the kind of love that deranges the senses and tips those who feel it into a helpless vortex of appetite and feeling.’”

Having studied art and architecture in Florence, Zeffirelli fought the Fascists with partisan forces during World War II. After the war, he began working in theater and opera as a set designer, painter, and all-around stagehand. It was during these years that he met Luchino Visconti, and the renowned director, smitten by the blond and blue-eyed aspiring artist, hired him as a personal assistant on Italy’s first theatrical production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Zeffirelli remained an assistant and lover to Visconti throughout the productions of the director’s La terra trema (1948), Bellissima (1951), and Senso (1954). But as Jonathan Kandell reports in the New York Times, Visconti “sought to undermine his protégé’s attempts to strike out on his own. Directing his first play, a revival of Carlo Bertolazzi’s Lulu in Rome in the 1940s, Mr. Zeffirelli was appalled to discover Mr. Visconti in the audience leading a chorus of jeers. The incident, Mr. Zeffirelli wrote, was part of the long, painful break between the two men.”

Despite Visconti’s efforts the thwart Zeffirelli’s career, the young director’s star rose in the world of opera throughout the 1950s, as he brought to his stagings “a flamboyant glamour more typical of Hollywood’s golden era,” as Kandell puts it. Elisabeth Vincentelli, also writing for the NYT, lists a few landmark productions, including his collaborations with Maria Callas (1958’s La traviata and 1964’s Tosca) and Joan Sutherland (1959’s Lucia di Lammermoor) and his 1963 staging of La bohème, of which Vincentelli writes, “If you want to see opera that goes over the top of the top, this is it, with a huge, multistory set and, at its fevered peak, hundreds of people crowding the stage, taking realism almost into surrealism.”

By the late 1960s, Zeffirelli’s screen career had taken off. He followed his first two features, The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet, with two productions rooted in his deep commitment to the Catholic Church. Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) was based on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, while the star-studded 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, cowritten with Anthony Burgess and Suso Cecchi d’Amico and endorsed by Pope Paul VI, drew a massive viewership from around the world. In 1979, Zeffirelli remade King Vidor’s The Champ (1931) with Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway, but throughout the 1980s his features were primarily extravagant reimaginings of famous operas. His 1986 adaptation of Verdi’s Otello with Plácido Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli premiered in competition at Cannes and was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe as best foreign-language film, but the overall critical reception was mixed.

Accusations of sexual misconduct eventually surfaced. Bruce Robinson, who played Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, has said that he was the target of Zeffirelli’s advances during the production and that he based Uncle Monty, the eccentric lecher in Withnail and I (1987), which Robinson wrote and directed, on Zeffirelli. Last year, Johnathon Schaech, who starred in Zeffirelli’s Sparrow (1993), detailed the director’s abuse of his privilege in a piece for People magazine. Similar accusations had been aired for years, but they didn’t keep Zeffirelli from being elected twice in the late 1990s to the Italian Parliament as an ultraconservative senator for Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. His electoral prospects weren’t hurt, either, by his claim that Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was the product of “that Jewish cultural scum of Los Angeles, which is always spoiling for a chance to attack the Christian world” or his argument that women who had had abortions deserved to be executed.

Even during and after his controversial political career, Zeffirelli continued to make movies. While his last feature would be the 2002 homage Callas Forever, with Fanny Ardant, the late work that gained the most notice was Tea with Mussolini (1999), a semiautobiographical portrait of a young Italian boy growing up in Florence surrounded by British and American women just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Featuring Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Cher, Judi Dench, and Lily Tomlin, the film would be Zeffirelli’s final box-office hit.

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